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EffectiveUI's Anthony Franco talks Flash Player 10

Insight on Adobe's latest Flash Player from a developer in the know By Kevin Schmitt

It seems that every time Adobe announces anything having to do with the Flash Platform, there is always an accompanying opportunity to talk to a representative from EffectiveUI, a Denver-based Rich Internet Application (RIA) provider which boasts a current staff of 79 and also has offices in Rochester, NY and Vancouver. As EffectiveUI is in the enviable position of getting to develop new and cool interfaces against very early versions of Adobe technology, a chance to speak with Anthony Franco, EffectiveUI's president, about Flash Player 10 and where the platform is going was too good to pass up.

Kevin Schmitt: Just as a background, tell me a little about EffectiveUI.

Anthony Franco: Well, our name kind of says it all - we're in the business of creating effective user interfaces. The market currently has been pushing us to this RIA realm, which is utilizing the Flash Player and soon the Silverlight Player. We have quite a bit of experience, therefore, with Adobe technology - we've produced some of the most public applications on Adobe technology. We designed and developed eBay Desktop; we do a lot of work for Discovery. Our last release for Discovery, [Discovery Earth Live], is a very interesting 3D model of the Earth that allows you to layer scientific data on top of it. Usually when we do the "elevator pitch" about EffectiveUI, it's all about the work, and the work that we do for our clients. We do work for Discovery, Dow Jones, eBay obviously, [and] we do work for Adobe.

KS: What's your relationship with Adobe? I assume you guys are getting out front with the new technology and then can talk to it as an interested but nonetheless independent party yourselves. Is that kind of how the relationship works in [announcement] situations like this?

AF: That's exactly it. In fact, eBay Desktop started just like that. Before Adobe AIR launched, before it was even called Adobe Apollo, we were brought in to help them help eBay build their Desktop application on this [technology] that turned out to be Adobe AIR. So we get in on the early stages, and frankly, we execute very well on the technology, so they bring us in on those hard and early adopter type [of] projects.

A screenshot from the eBay Desktop AIR application. (Image courtesy EffectiveUI PR)

KS: OK. So, in a nutshell, what does Flash Player 10 bring to the table?

AF: For us, we're most excited about two things. We're excited about some of the performance enhancements and improvements we're going to get from Flash Player 10, and the text flow stuff that Flash Player 10 gives us. Ultimately, we're going to be able to build more sophisticated applications on top of Flash Player 10. With the 3D stuff, with the text flow stuff, with the hardware acceleration, it allows us to push the envelope even more.

KS: I go back a pretty long way with Flash, and there are a couple of "game changing" moments in the history of Flash. One was when Flash 5 came out, which made ActionScript into something useful...

AF: There was an actual Expert Mode for coding in Flash 5!

KS: Right! Then the one that sticks out in my head is the transition from Flash 7 to 8; 8 was more a designer-level thing, but it brought game-changing stuff to the Flash authoring environment and Player, and it seems to me from the feature list you just ticked off and the stuff that I've seen that we might be in for a similar type of shift - what would you say to that statement?

AF: I think you're right. From [Flash] 4 to 5 was pretty significant - it allowed Adobe to coin the term Rich Internet Application, because [you could do] applications and not just animation or Flash banner ads. 7 to 8 was pretty significant, you're right, [but also] because there was a more sophisticated programming model [in] ActionScript 2.0. I also believe that the 8 to 9 jump was an extremely significant jump because they basically rewrote the virtual machine. So they rewrote the Flash Player from scratch, basically [laying] the groundwork and foundation for what they're implementing in Flash Player 10. So, [in] the jump from 8 to 9, there was no real big functionality added to it, [but] they rewrote the virtual machine to make sure it could play existing Flash content, and anything written in the new [ActionScript] 3.0 would perform better and faster in the new virtual machine, and it laid the groundwork for what they're now releasing in Flash Player 10.

KS: Sure. 7 to 8 seemed to be about designers, and 8 to 9 seemed to be about developers, and 10 maybe seems [to address] both.

AF: It is about both - it's a more sophisticated runtime. So we can do more both from a development standpoint - you know, data crunching and that kind of stuff - and because you can do more on the development side, we're less constrained on what we can design. [What Adobe is doing] is laying the groundwork for a better designer/developer workflow, which will mean that we can take things from Illustrator and import it more easily [into] Flash Player.

KS: Even more so than CS3?

AF: Oh yeah, definitely. There's a new project underway within Adobe [code named] Thermo, and we interviewed (Steven Heintz), the product manager of [Thermo] for the [User Interface Resource Center], and there's a whole explanation of what Adobe's doing to even dramatically improve what designers do and how to implement it in development. There are currently some open source efforts - in fact, we have a couple of guys who work for EffectiveUI [who are] working on one called Degrafa, and it makes the Flex/Flash drawing API look more like SVG for programmers. We're actually using Degrafa and we'll be leveraging the new text flow stuff in a project we're going to be releasing for a yearbook publisher - Herff Jones - and the text flow and text wrapping that we're going to get with the new Flash Player as well as the new drawing API stuff with Degrafa will give us the ability to build a true professional page layout tool for high school students to use to publish their yearbooks.

KS: You mentioned performance before - I maintain that just because Flash can do all these things doesn't mean it's a good idea to put them all together, especially when you talk about 3D stuff and inverse kinematics and everything. Just based on the stuff you've thrown at it so far, how is the performance?

AF: Flash Player 10 is significantly better, because it's taking [hardware acceleration] into account. So the video hardware acceleration and the new 2.5D stuff - the "rotating postcard in space" stuff that they're doing - is going to be significantly faster than what we're doing right now in just plain ActionScript. So, I know there's the bigger question of just because you can, should you? But I encourage you to go take a look at Discovery Earth Live, [where] I believe we've done a really good job [of] bringing a 3D environment to mass consumption. It's just a simple globe that you can rotate around - I know it's only a sphere - but it gives you a good interaction model makes 3D usable. In that circumstance we had to jump through a significant number of hoops [where] we're basically mapping video around a 3D object on the client side at runtime. That becomes much easier to do with Flash Player 10 - we're not going to have to jump through as many development hoops as we did for Flash Player 9.

A screenshot from Discovery Earth Live. (Image courtesy EffectiveUI PR)

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